It’s almost impossible to be good at everything in the modern NFL. We’re not that far removed from an era in which the league’s best teams were dominant on both sides of the ball. From 1991-99, at least one team in each season posted a top-five finish in both offensive and defensive DVOA. Fast forward 20 years and from 2011-19, only five of those seasons featured a team that was in the top five on both offense and defense.

One of those seasons was the still-nascent 2019 campaign, and the team was the Patriots, who will be dropping from their fourth-placed spot in offensive DVOA after the Bills held them to nine points on offense Sunday.

All across the league in Week 4, we saw teams that might be able to stake their claim as the best in football struggle to live up to expectations. Several of those squads pulled out narrow victories, but the tape isn’t going anywhere. This could be another year without a single team blowing away the competition on both offense and defense.

Let’s run through those teams and get a sense of what might be holding them back or loom as a serious flaw. With apologies to the Packers (who didn’t play on Sunday) and the Seahawks (who have now played all four of their games against teams that were missing their best player for part or all of the contest), I’ll start with the Patriots, who faced their toughest test of the season so far by a considerable margin:

Jump to a team:
BUF | CHI | DAL
KC | LAR | NE | NO

The problem: Lack of infrastructure around Tom Brady

Rarely do you see Brady as flummoxed by a defense as he was against the Bills on Sunday. The 42-year-old finished the 16-10 win just 18-of-39 passing for 150 yards and an interception, with New England’s nine offensive points coming on short fields after interceptions. (More on those in a minute.) Against a Sean McDermott defense that specializes in taking away big plays, Brady’s average completion traveled just 2.9 yards in the air, the shortest mark for any quarterback in Week 4.

This was one of the least productive games of Brady’s career. That’s not hyperbole. Using adjusted yards per attempt, which is a better-weighted version of passer rating, Brady’s 2.7 AY/A was the eighth-worst start of the future Hall of Famer’s career in games with 20 pass attempts or more. Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised. The six worst contests were all starts from before the Brady Awakening in 2007. The seventh-worst start was Brady’s game against the Bills in Week 16 last season, when he averaged just 2.3 AY/A in a 24-12 victory.

Of course, Brady and the Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl last season, so there’s not much to be worried about, right? Yes and no. It’s fair to note that they won’t have to play the Bills every week, and Buffalo might very well have the best defense in football. Brady has looked great this season and played fine on Sunday beyond an awful interception in the end zone on a pass he never should have thrown.

Last season, though, the Patriots had ways to help out Brady. Their running game took over during the AFC portion of the playoffs, with Sony Michel running behind an offensive line that coalesced as the season went along. In their postseason wins over the Chargers and Chiefs, the Pats ran the ball 82 times for 331 yards, 25 first downs and eight touchdowns. More than 46% of their runs qualified as successful by ESPN’s expected points added model (EPA).

Anyone who owns Michel in fantasy football is well-aware that the former first-round pick has struggled mightily this season. He began the game with a 15-yard carry and finished with 17 carries for 63 yards, but neither he nor the rest of the Pats’ backs have been up to the task. New England is 24th in the league in yards per carry (3.2), and just over 40% of its runs have qualified as successful by EPA. That figure falls to 36.7% if you exclude the game against the Dolphins, who don’t appear to be playing the same sport as the Bills.

I wouldn’t pin all of the blame on Michel and the backs. An offensive line that was dominant during the postseason is just trying to get by right now. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn, who went down during the Week 2 win over the Dolphins, is on injured reserve with turf toe. His replacement is journeyman Marshall Newhouse, who played Sunday after missing practice with an illness. The Pats were already down center David Andrews, who is done for the year with blood clots, and made a rare pro scouting misstep when they traded a sixth-round pick for Bills center Russell Bodine, only to cut him after a week. Fullback James Develin, a key blocker in the running game, is also on injured reserve.

When the Pats struggled to run the ball or do much of anything on offense during the Super Bowl, they had a second advantage to fall back on: Gronk. They pieced together their game-winning drive against the Rams by running the same play three times in a row for 49 yards, setting up a Michel plunge. Rob Gronkowski and Develin made that concept work as bigger players who were both excellent blockers and viable (or in Gronk’s case, much more than viable) receivers. The Patriots could start with heavy personnel, force the opposing defense to match with their base defense, and then use their weapons to create mismatches in the passing game.

Gronkowski is gone, and the Patriots don’t have the healthy pieces to create those mismatches. Remember two weeks ago, when I wrote about how the Patriots could go 16-0 and gushed about the upside of their receiving corps around Brady? A lot has changed in two weeks. Antonio Brown is no longer on the roster. Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman are both less than 100 percent as they play through injuries, and they’ve each dropped two passes over the past two weeks. Gordon is a mismatch when healthy, and Edelman was whipping the Steelers as recently as Week 1, but the Pats’ best receivers right now are Phillip Dorsett and James White.

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Tom Brady knows his offense can be better, especially in the red zone, but he also says the Bills’ defense is very good and there’s a reason they were 3-0.

As a result, Brady spent most of Sunday throwing to White and Dorsett, who combined for 19 of his 34 catchable targets. (Five of his passes were marked as thrown away.) He was stuck attempting to repeatedly thread the needle downfield, and while he managed to create one big play on a wheel route to White and a second by attacking a gimpy Tre’Davious White for a pass interference call after James White went out with an injury, many of those passes into tight windows fell incomplete.

This should get better as the season goes along. The Patriots get Washington and the two New York teams over the next three weeks, which should help make them look a lot better than they did against the Bills. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has a long history of improving his linemen as the season goes along, and the Pats should get better once Wynn returns from his toe injury in November. They might also get back first-round wideout N’Keal Harry as their other player from injured reserve at midseason, which would give Brady a physical mismatch in single coverage. Gordon and Edelman should also get healthier. Of the various concerns I’m laying out here, the Pats’ problems are more fixable than most.


The problem: Josh Allen is hopeless against smart defenses

Sunday’s Bills-Patriots game was reminiscent of last December’s game between those two teams on both sides of the ball. The Bills forced Brady into one of this worst games as a pro. On the other side, the Patriots took away what Allen does best and forced him into beating them from the pocket. Allen couldn’t do it last December, and the second-year quarterback was even worse Sunday.

The worst quarterback performance of the day by Total QBR belonged to Allen, who went 13-of-28 for 153 yards with three interceptions, four sacks and a fumble before being knocked out of the game by a hit to the head from Jonathan Jones. Before the injury, Allen simply had no answer for how the Patriots defended him. Bill Belichick’s defense is having a wildly impressive start to the season.

If you’ve watched Allen play more than a handful of snaps, you know how he threatens teams. He has improved his accuracy and thrown fewer deep passes in 2019, but the possibility of the deep throw and the threat Allen provides with his legs is where he can really hurt opposing defenses. Much of that comes from outside the pocket. Since the start of 2018, he has thrown about 20% of his passes from outside the pocket and leads the league in scramble yards.

Last season, the Patriots stayed disciplined in their rush lanes, trapped Allen in the pocket and trusted their defensive backs to hold up in coverage against a middling Bills receiving corps. They forced Allen to throw 41 times, and he completed just 20 of those passes for 217 yards, adding two picks. Outside of the pocket, Allen was just 1-of-3 for 5 yards. He scrambled only twice for a total of 11 yards. Belichick took away Allen’s ability to place defenders in conflict with his legs and subsequently rendered Allen wholly ineffective.

Guess what happened Sunday? The Patriots forced Allen to live inside the pocket; he again was just 1-of-3 outside the pocket, and while his one completion went for 16 yards, one of the incompletions was a brutal interception. Allen scrambled just three times for 20 yards, fumbling on one of those runs.

With more confidence in his secondary, Belichick heaped added pressure on Allen by sending big blitzes — or what appeared to be big blitzes — on many third downs. While he wasn’t sacked once in last season’s matchup, the Patriots sacked him four times Sunday, with a fifth wiped away by a Stephon Gilmore holding penalty. One of those sacks came just before halftime and pushed Buffalo backward for what became a 49-yard field goal, which Stephen Hauschka then pushed wide. The sack that was wiped off by Gilmore’s holding call was the most interesting of the bunch, as a Cover Zero rush where Allen simply had no idea where to go with the football (animation courtesy of NFL Next Gen Stats):

It will infuriate Bills fans who insist otherwise, but Buffalo likely would have won this game with former quarterback Tyrod Taylor, if only because the biggest strength of the now-Chargers backup is his ability to avoid turnovers. The team would have had a viable shot of winning if Allen had just kneeled three times and run off to the sideline for a punt. The Bills were able to get Frank Gore and the running game going, with the ageless wonder running 17 times for 109 yards and setting up a Drew Brees-esque glance over the pile from Allen for a touchdown, but they had the fifth-worst passing game of the season by win probability added.

It’s too early to give up on Allen improving, of course. He’s going to look better against less-disciplined defenses, as he did against the Giants in Week 2. His next six weeks include a game against Washington and a pair of games against the Dolphins, and it wouldn’t shock me if he looks like he’s improving against dismal competition. On Sunday, though, he was quite obviously holding back the rest of his team.


The problem: The front seven

Last week, I wrote about how the Chiefs still can’t stop the run. When you’re the Chiefs and your quarterback is Patrick Mahomes, though, you can generally afford to be bad against the run. Andy Reid’s offense has scored on a staggering 63.7% of its first-half possessions since the start of 2018, which is comfortably the best mark in football. No other team tops 50% over that same time frame. The Chiefs get out to plenty of early leads, which force the opposing offense to abandon its running game and throw the ball to try to catch (or keep) up. The Chiefs are a NASCAR car with a perennially malfunctioning windshield wiper. Most of the time, their biggest weakness isn’t going to really matter.

What’s more concerning about the Chiefs, though, is that the offseason changes they made to try to improve their pass defense haven’t really taken. After hiring Steve Spagnuolo to replace Bob Sutton, the Chiefs overhauled their secondary, adding three new starters in cornerback Bashaud Breeland, safety Tyrann Mathieu and rookie safety Juan Thornhill. The biggest shift, though, was up front, where they acquired Frank Clark and Alex Okafor to replace Dee Ford and Justin Houston on the edge. Both Clark and Okafor are solid against the run, but the Chiefs made those moves to try to improve their pass rush.

So far, the pass rush is much worse. Kansas City pressured opposing quarterbacks on 31.1% of dropbacks last season, the seventh-highest rate in football. This season, that same pressure rate has fallen all the way to 23.8%, which is just ahead of the Falcons at 25th in the NFL. Kansas City’s sack rate hasn’t fallen quite as precipitously, but quarterbacks have had an easier time against the Chiefs than they did a year ago.

On Sunday, we saw the Lions take advantage of both concerns and outplay the Chiefs, only to be denied victory by their own mistakes. Detroit controlled the clock, held the ball for nearly 34 minutes, and ran the ball 35 times for 186 yards. Matthew Stafford came into the game with a hip injury but didn’t show many effects; the Chiefs pressured him only 22.5% of the time, and he went 21-of-34 for 291 yards and three touchdowns.

The Lions had 11 meaningful possessions, leaving out the two that came at the end of each half. Six of those 11 possessions made it inside the Chiefs’ 10-yard line. Three of them ended in touchdowns. One resulted in a field goal. The other two produced fumbles. One was Stafford’s worst play of the game and came after a Kenny Golladay touchdown catch was narrowly overturned; the former first overall pick scrambled out of a collapsing pocket, only to lose the ball on his way out, costing the Lions three points.

The other fumble cost them as many as 14 points, when Kerryon Johnson fumbled inside the 2-yard line and Breeland scooped up the ball and returned it for a 100-yard touchdown amid relative indifference from the Lions, who thought Johnson was down. The fumble was confirmed on replay and appeared to be the correct decision, but it reinforced just how the NFL has pushed officials into a corner.

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Chris Berman and Tom Jackson are surprised to see the Chiefs’ defense still letting up big points heading into Week 5. To watch NFL PrimeTime, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/.

I’m still concerned about the Kansas City defense holding up week after week throughout a postseason run. While Chiefs fans were basically excited to have anybody besides Sutton as defensive coordinator, Spagnuolo’s defenses ranked 26th or worse in points allowed in four of his previous five seasons as head coach or defensive coordinator before joining the Chiefs. Chris Jones, who had a career season with 14.5 sacks and 29 knockdowns last year, has two sacks and five knockdowns through four games. Clark has one sack and one knockdown.

There’s plenty of time to get going, and the secondary has shown more promise than it did a year ago, but the early returns on Kansas City’s big offseason decisions aren’t great.


The problem: Pass pressure

The Cowboys, likewise, haven’t been great getting after quarterbacks this season. While they have yet to play a quarterback who wasn’t either benched or a backup to start the season, they’re pressuring opposing passers on just 19.7% of dropbacks after one month of football. That’s the third-worst rate in football, ahead of only the Raiders and Dolphins.

The likes of Eli Manning and Josh Rosen weren’t able to make the Cowboys pay frequently, but there’s already a noticeable drop-off when the Cowboys don’t get home. When Dallas does get pressure on the opposing passer, it allows a passer rating of 27.8, which is fifth best in football. Its Total QBR in those situations is a mere 1.2, the third-best mark in the NFL. Without pressure, the Cowboys fall to a 96.2 passer rating and 58.4 Total QBR, which is 12th and 10th in the league, respectively. I suspect that gap will rise as the Cowboys face a tougher slate of passers from here on out, including Aaron Rodgers and the Packers next Sunday.




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